Indeed, the tally found that Gore would have
carried Florida’s key electoral votes regardless of the standard used
for judging so-called “undervotes,” ballots kicked out by vote-counting
machines which could detect no presidential choice. Gore won even
ignoring Florida’s other irregularities – such as the badly designed
“butterfly ballots” and the improper “felon purges” – that cost him
thousands of additional votes.
To put it more starkly, a recount conducted by a
consortium of major media organizations had determined that George W.
Bush, the guy in the White House, not only lost the national popular
vote but should have lost the Electoral College, too. To be even
blunter, a pivotal U.S. presidential election had been stolen.
But that wasn’t how the major newspapers and TV
networks presented their findings. Instead, they bent over backwards to
concoct hypothetical situations in which George W. Bush might still have
won the presidency – if the recount had been limited to only a few
counties or if legal “overvotes,” where a voter both checks and writes
in the name of the candidate, were cast aside.
Though the news media’s recount had started with
the goal of assessing whether Florida voters favored Gore or Bush, that
purpose was lost in a rush to shore up Bush’s fragile legitimacy in the
weeks after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The key discovery of Gore’s victory was buried deep
in the stories or relegated to charts that accompanied the articles.
Any casual reader would have come away from reading
the New York Times or the Washington Post with the conclusion that Bush
really had won Florida and thus was the legitimate president after all.
The Post’s headline read, “Florida Recounts Would
Have Favored Bush.” Referring to Bush’s success in getting five U.S.
Supreme Court justices to stop the vote-counting, the Times ran the
headline: “Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast
the Deciding Vote.”
Some columnists, such as the Post’s media analyst
Howard Kurtz, even launched preemptive strikes against anyone who would
read the fine print and spot the hidden “lede” of Gore’s victory. Kurtz
labeled such people “conspiracy theorists.” [Washington Post, Nov. 12,
After reading these slanted “Bush Won” stories on
the morning of Nov. 12, 2001, I wrote an article for Consortiumnews.com
noting that the obvious “lede” should have been that the recount
revealed that Gore had won. I suggested that the news judgments of
senior editors might have been influenced by a desire to appear
patriotic only two months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. [See
My article had been on the Internet for only an
hour or two when I received an irate phone call from New York Times
media writer Felicity Barringer, who accused me of impugning the
journalistic integrity of then-Times executive editor Howell Raines. I
got the impression that Barringer had been on the look-out for some
deviant story that didn’t accept the pro-Bush conventional wisdom.
[For more on Election 2000, see
Bush Did Steal the White House.” For a broader historical
perspective, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
Iraq War Prelude
This early example of the U.S. news media building
a protective cocoon around George W. Bush’s presidency is relevant again
today as many Americans try to understand how Bush was able to lead the
nation so deeply into a disastrous war in Iraq and why the U.S. news
media has performed its watchdog duties so miserably.
The history of the mis-reported Election 2000
recount also attracted the recent attention of New York Times columnist
Paul Krugman. After referencing Gore’s apparent Florida victory in one
column, Krugman said he was inundated by an “outraged reaction” from
readers who thought they knew the history but who really had learned
only a false conventional wisdom about how the recount supposedly
In a second column entitled “Don’t Prettify Our
History,” Krugman argues that “we aren’t doing the country a favor when
we present recent history in a way that makes our system look better
than it is. Sometimes the public needs to hear unpleasant truths, even
if those truths make them feel worse about their country. …
“Election 2000 may be receding into the past, but
the Iraq war isn’t. As the truth about the origins of that war comes
out, there may be a temptation, once again, to prettify the story. The
American people deserve better.” [NYT, Aug. 22, 2005]
Whether Americans can expect better is an open
A strong argument even could be made that Krugman
is wrong suggesting that the news media just wanted to “prettify”
American history or that I was wrong in speculating that the distorted
reporting on the Election 2000 recount was just a case of putting
patriotism over professionalism.
A harsher interpretation is that journalists put
their careers – not their love of country – ahead of their duty to tell
the American people the truth. In other words, big media personalities
may have understood that challenging Bush would put their big pay checks
in harm’s way. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The
Answer Is Fear.”]
At Powell’s Feet
That also appears to have been the pattern during
the run-up to war with Iraq. It was safer for journalists to toe the
line on Bush’s case for war with Iraq than to contest the dubious
arguments presented by the likes of then-Secretary of State Colin
One only needs to look back at the op-ed pages in
the days after Powell’s speech to the United Nations Security Council on
Feb. 5, 2003, to see the lock-step thinking of columnists across the
mainstream political spectrum.
Even though Powell’s speech was riddled with
falsehoods and questionable assertions, none of the many journalists who
safely positioned themselves at Powell’s feet suffered professionally
for their lack of professional skepticism. Many of the same columnists
are still holding down lucrative jobs on the Washington Post op-ed page
or as pundits on TV talks shows.
There’s also little indication that skepticism has
been ramped up to the levels that would seem justified by the long list
of Bush’s discredited war rationales.
Last March, for instance, many commentators –
including New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and the Washington
Post’s David Ignatius and the editorial boards of the Times and the Post
– were hailing Bush’s new Iraq War rationale, that is was the instrument
to advance “democratization” in the Middle East.
Just as the pundits had bought into the WMD claims
in 2002-2003, they fell for Bush’s argument that the invasion of Iraq
would spread democracy across the Islamic world and thus destroy Islamic
extremism. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocon
Amorality” or “Bush’s
Since then, as the optimism about “democratization”
has receded – from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Iraq and Lebanon – the Bush
administration and the pundit class have shifted rationales again, this
time to a modern version of the “domino theory” – that a quick
withdrawal from Iraq is unthinkable because it would undermine U.S.
Just as it was nearly impossible to find a
prominent U.S. pundit who challenged Bush’s original WMD claims, there’s
now a scarcity of commentators who dare to make the argument that a U.S.
military withdrawal from Iraq might undercut Islamic terrorism (by
driving a wedge between Iraqi Sunni insurgents and outside jihadists who
have come to Iraq to kill Americans). That wedge, in turn, could help
stabilize Iraq, while Washington could focus on removing other root
causes of Islamic anger, such as the Israel-Palestinian conflict. [See
& the Logic of Withdrawal.”]
Still, self-interest remains the driving force
behind Washington punditry. So, some columnists seem to be repositioning
themselves in the face of Bush’s slipping popularity, by sniping at Bush
about style while continuing to support him on substance.
For instance, a Washington Post column by New Republic editor Peter
Beinart chides Bush for refusing to meet with Cindy Sheehan, a mother of
a soldier who died in Iraq. But Beinart, who supported the Iraq
invasion, adds that Bush “is right to refuse” Sheehan’s call for a U.S.
withdrawal because “it would be a disaster for national security and a
betrayal of our responsibility to Iraq.” [Washington Post, Aug. 18,
David Ignatius, another Post columnist and war supporter, struck a
similar theme: “Let’s look at what the president is doing right: At a
time when anguished Americans are calling for a quick withdrawal from
Iraq, Bush is telling them a painful truth. ‘Pulling the troops out
[now] would send a terrible signal to the enemy,’ [Bush] said.”
[Washington Post, Aug. 17, 2005]
Perhaps one of the most remarkable facts about the Iraq War is that
despite all the errors and misjudgments, the Washington pundit class,
which cheered the nation off to war, remains remarkably unchanged.
Though the Iraq War may be the most glaring example in decades of the
U.S. government and the national news media letting down the American
people and especially the troops sent off to fight, virtually no one
responsible for this catastrophe has been punished.
While journalists have been fired for far-less serious errors,
there’s been no known case of a media personality being publicly
punished for buying into the Bush administration’s bogus arguments for
invading Iraq. Instead, many of these same media personalities continue
to lecture the American people about what needs to be done in Iraq.
But this Bush cocoon started years ago, when journalists forgot that
their first duty in a democracy was to give the people the truth as
fully and fairly as possible, even if some Americans didn’t want to hear